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Greetings from Newfields, New Hampshire!

Shortly after announcing a Sept. 23 hearing on the prospects of federal privacy legislation, members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation ensured they’d have something to discuss after they introduced the Setting an American Framework to Ensure Data Access, Transparency, and Accountability Act Thursday evening. IAPP Senior Westin Research Fellow Müge Fazlioglu will have an analysis of the bill early next week. In the meantime, I am going to take my time here to explain why we should temper expectations and remain hopeful all at once. Yes, that’s indeed a familiar refrain.

The pessimistic view is that we’ve been here before with this committee. In fact, the committee has made a habit of scheduling privacy hearings about the same time each year for the last three years. The first discussion came in September 2018, then December 2019 and here we are again in 2020. The titles of these hearings really tell the story of congressional efforts on privacy, too: “examining safeguards” to “examining proposals” and now “revisiting the need.”

There’s no question these conversations spur some semblance of progress toward the ultimate goal of a federal privacy law, but it’s easy to overlook that essentially the same meeting is being had for a third time. In addition to making it look like lawmakers are saying “it’s that time of year again,” there’s also a presidential election and pandemic likely standing in the way of anything more than chatter actually coming from next week’s discussion.

On the flip side, this hearing and bill introduction hits a refresh on privacy just prior to a potential turning point in the political cycle. You hate to politicize things too much, but in my talks with a few IAPP members this week, there’s real intrigue about what happens with privacy in the U.S. if Democrats win the White House and Congress on Nov. 3. 

The value of privacy among Democrats alone improves odds for quick action on a privacy law, but Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., might be the key. Harris is a privacy advocate through and through with her work in the Senate and, to a greater extent, as the California attorney general from 2011-2017. Harris was not shy about holding Big Tech accountable on consumer privacy and bolstering privacy enforcement efforts in California, setting the stage for the California Consumer Privacy Act and potentially the California Privacy Rights Act.

So maybe next week’s Senate hearing once again only pokes at moving the privacy needle in the immediate, but 46 days from now, we may find the dialogue proved a little more useful.


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